Whether you call it "pink slime" or lean, finely textured beef, you can call it a much-maligned product at the heart of an emotional controversy fueled by misinformation, according to a meat expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

The stuff made headlines recently when it was reported that the federal government plans to buy ground beef that contains the product, also known as LFTB, in the coming year for use in the national school lunch program's beef products. After a newspaper broke the story, a national furor erupted, and "pink slime" became the most searched topic on the Internet.

But the debate has been overhyped by the news media and distorted in social media, contends Edward Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science. "It is unfortunate that it has been dubbed pink slime, even though it may be an unattractive material," said Mills, who teaches food science courses on the science and technology of meat, poultry and seafood, including factors affecting the palatability and wholesomeness of meat.

"But 'lean, finely textured beef' just doesn't roll off the tongue the way 'pink slime' does. Folks can make up their own minds about this, but there is so much misinformation out there now that it makes it difficult for most people to know what to believe."

The material in question is lean meat that remains on fat trimmings removed from beef carcasses and that cannot be reclaimed with a knife cost effectively, explained Mills, who holds both master's and doctoral degrees in meat science. This remaining meat is separated from fat in a mechanical process that involves heating minced trimmings only to about body temperature (100 degrees) then centrifuging to separate lean from fat.

"So there was a significant amount of lean going to waste that now is recovered," he said. "The regulatory wing of USDA says that this product fits in the same category as boneless lean meat. It is the consistency of baby food and most often used along with conventional boneless beef to make ground beef."

Because the trimmings may harbor dangerous pathogens that can cause foodborne illness, they are decontaminated with either ammonia gas or citric acid, Mills noted. He strongly disputes claims that lean, finely textured beef is unsafe.